Cinematic Tour: The Brothers Quay in 35mm

Andrew attended director Christopher Nolan's exclusive 35mm screenings of celebrated stop motion animators, The Quay Brothers.

The genius twins.
Identical twin American stop-motion animators Stephen and Timothy Quay are among the world's most celebrated and influential avant-garde artists still working in the cinematic medium today.  Heavily influenced by Polish animators Walerian Borowczyk and Jan Lenica as well as Czechoslovakian animator Jan Svankmajer, their work is best known for its use of automaton puppeteering and the integration of common household items into the bizarre and industrial looking set pieces of their films.  Fellow animator and director Terry Gilliam, who went on to produce their first full length feature film The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes, cited their most famous short Street of Crocodiles as one of the ten best animated films of all time. 

With their wholly original images set to industrial music frequently composed by Leszek Jankowski, watching one of their animated shorts is like entering David Lynch's Eraserhead in stop motion with an even greater disconnect from reality and a seemingly darker edge.  As the advent of 35mm film projection seems to sadly be in its death throes, staunch filmmakers determined to keep the shooting and projection of film alive such as Christopher Nolan, Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson have turned the love for film into a battle.  All three filmmakers have taken to shooting their last features on 70mm filmstock and the latest piece of ammunition to the fight is a newly curated film series by Christopher Nolan entitled The Brothers Quay in 35mm

Consisting of three of their most celebrated works, In Absentia, The Comb, Street of Crocodiles and finally a short documentary on the Quay Brothers shot and edited by Nolan himself, The Brothers Quay in 35mm is an extremely special film experience.  In giving the uninitiated an elite look at the highlights of their work as well as a look behind the curtain of their creative process, all four films were shot and printed on 35mm film.  Maintaining even further integrity to the Quays' images, each film was shot and presented in a different aspect ratio of the filmmakers' choosing, meaning between each and every short the curtains went up as the screen size was then adjusted according to the Quays' specifications, ranging from 2.35:1 panorama to 1.66:1-1.33:1 respectively. 

It goes without saying all three of their shorts look and sound wonderful in the newly struck prints and will give newcomers the best possible presentation of their work.  Christopher Nolan's short documentary entitled Quay showcases the director's trademark dark visuals found in Batman Begins and The Prestige with distant strings augmenting the Quays' process of opening, working in and finally closing their studio for the day.  It's a unique if only brief glance at the mysterious animators who have always been secretive about their way of doing things but it's a welcome rounding off of the package, allowing viewers just enough information that the magic of the Quays' isn't spoiled for good.  To make sure we definitely got the message, Nolan reminds us in the end credits Quay was "shot and finished on 35mm".

"You get me closer to God"
While The Brothers Quay in 35mm can't necessarily be judged as a complete film and all of their works are already available on home video, seeing these altogether theatrically on film was an indelible film experience I am gratified to have taken.  So many images contained therein I could trace the influences on mainstream media it almost invalidated some of my favorite music videos.  For instance, the entire Nine Inch Nails video for Closer by Mark Romanek may as well be an admitted live action remake of Street of Crocodiles and Chris Cunningham took more than a few cues from In Absentia for his Autechre video Second Bad Vibel.  Nearly every Tool video ever released in stop motion animation lifts so heavily from the Quays that for years people mistakenly thought the Quays were responsible for them.  The Quays themselves were responsible for their own brand of music videos including uncredited contributions to Peter Gabriel's Sledgehammer and videos for His Name is Alive and Michael Penn. 

First and foremost however is their own work borne from within and contrary to popular belief their work takes the most influence from Jan Svankmajer (a master in his own right), the Quays formulated their style well before happening upon Svankmajer.  For those new to the Quays, the limited engagement tour The Brothers Quay in 35mm is the perfect introductory chapter to a 30 year long career of some of the finest surrealist short animated films ever made.  More than anything, Christopher Nolan and the Quays have provided viewers a viable example of why film exhibition on physical 35mm filmstock still matters and after emerging from The Brothers Quay in 35mm, I have to respect their argument on why 35mm needs to be kept alive and not merely filed away as a lost art.

-Andrew Kotwicki

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